I remember distinctly the day—a Thursday in early May of 2005—I walked out of the last class I would ever take as a student. The German translation course that had been foisted upon me by the powers-that-were at The University of Texas at Austin had not been my favorite (far from it), but there was an electricity present as I packed up my things and left the nondescript classroom, one step closer to completing a journey that had started so many years before. We all cross that threshold at one point or another in our lives, when we are quite sure that we are done “learning” and look forward to when we can start “doing.” Of course, we could not be further from the truth; not only are we always learning—or, at least, presented with opportunities to learn—but every once in a while we find ourselves seated at the feet of a true master, from whom one cannot help but want to glean as much as possible from such a short, yet valuable, “class.”
This week I found myself seated next to one of those masters, and you better believe I was indeed schooled by her. Last year I was commissioned by Chicago’s Gaudete Brass to write a brass quintet for their concert at Symphony Space in January. To make a long story short, the work was finished before Christmas and premiered in mid-January. After the concert, the group informed me that Cedille Records had chosen to record their next CD and my work had been selected to be a part of the project. Fast-forward to this past Wednesday, where I ended up (somewhat groggily, I might add) at the recording session in Goshen, Indiana. The group seemed upbeat and excited about the whole session, since they had already put one piece to bed and had three more days of recording in front of them. When it became time to get started, I was directed to a chair in between the engineer and the producer. I had never worked with a professional classical producer before, so I was intrigued as to what the day had in store.
What I have yet to mention is that the producer for the session—hired by Cedille Records—was Judith Sherman, who had just received a Grammy Award (her third) for Classical Producer of the Year a few days before. Having looked at the list of the incredible recordings she had overseen just in 2011, I tried my best to act like this was no big thing…which lasted all of about two minutes. Luckily, my penchant for shifting into interview mode and asking questions was quashed by the clock and by her no-nonsense demeanor; we needed to record this piece of mine efficiently and effectively.
What followed was a five-hour post-graduate seminar on squeezing the absolute best out of a chamber ensemble, with topics ranging from basic session etiquette, random extraneous noise detection and removal, artist and composer negotiations, and the strategies and tactics of recording a newly composed work when working with an ensemble where the depletion of chops is a never-ending concern. She never had to remind anyone who was in charge; her confidence and leadership was so pervasive that one could not help but follow her instructions to the letter. And those instructions—she continually jotted notes down in her score or on her notebook and while I attempted to hear the work from an audience’s point of view, her ability to catch the most subtle rhythmic or articulation discrepancies and the need for better intonation on two 16th notes in the middle of an interior passage between the horn and 2nd trumpet was beyond impressive.
What this experience showed me was the value of trusting someone else’s ears, especially during something so important as a recording session. To have someone put your music through their filters, understand what it should sound like, and guide the ensemble to that sonic and artistic goal is both a luxury (especially with someone at the top of their game like Judith) and a necessity; we each only have two ears, and as a composer it’s extremely difficult to run a session all by oneself with the various distractions that come with having written the piece that’s getting recorded. As she did with the quintet, Sherman instilled a confidence in me that allowed me to not only improve the composition in several places, but feel that the work was good enough to deserve such attention from her. Having been schooled by the master, I can only imagine how this day in class will affect my own teaching in the future.